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“Derailments aren’t very frequent,” he said. “Things are transported all the time, by train, truck and other ways. All we can do is prepare for the worst.”
There have been just two crude oil spills involving rail in the state: near Parkers Prairie and in Sartell in 2010. The Sartell spill was smaller, involving 120 gallons. Neither caused any injuries.
Since 1996, there have been at least 360 railroad spills of petroleum products, a broader category that includes light fuel oil and jet fuel. Most of them involved 100 gallons or less, according to records from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
A BNSF spokeswoman pointed out that hazardous material — including those riskier than crude oil, such as ammonia and other chemicals — make up just 5 percent of what’s transported by rail.
Both BNSF and CP, neither of which was involved in the Quebec spill, touted their training of responders in cities across the state.
“Safety is a priority,” said CP spokesman Ed Greenberg. “It is a focus that will never change.”
Counting oil cars
The Cozy Cup Cafe in Parkers Prairie sells about 15 hamburgers a day. Maybe 20. But one day in January, it served 109.
The railroad workers were in town.
“It’s a shame when you have to say that, for a small town, a disaster is good. But it’s true,” said Alice Ritter, who has owned the cafe since 2005. The spill “was a godsend.”
The CP train derailed on farmland north of town in March. Three tanker cars leaked, “affecting a ditch and a field,” according to an MPCA report on the spill. The railroad estimated that 15,000 gallons of heavy crude oil leaked.
Crews pumped oil into other railcars, built a berm to contain the mess and sopped up oil with blankets and wood chips, the report said.
Many people drinking coffee and eating doughnuts in the cafe last week praised the crews, who hailed from as far away as Texas, for their cleanliness and politeness. “Plus,” Ritter said, gesturing at a table full of men in baseball caps, “it gave those guys something to talk about.”
The group gathers at the cafe each day at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. On a recent Thursday, the table filled by 2:58. The men, most of whom are retired, sometimes debate proposed oil pipelines, which are seen as an alternative to rail transportation. Most of the men back that idea, said Justen Ritter, Alice’s grandson. But he believes it’s not a question of transportation: “The sooner we can move away from oil, altogether, the better.”
From his kitchen window, Ralph Jahnke, 88, counts the crude oil cars as the trains pass, rattling his duplex and jiggling the curtains. There were 16 on a train, 50 on another. One day, 85. The numbers are growing, Jahnke said.
He believes the busy rail lines hint at a healthier economy. “It shows that the United States is still here,” Jahnke said.
Staff writer David Shaffer contributed to this report. Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168